A few months ago I did a write up entitled Make Bands Great…Again. In it, I cited actions and scenarios that I thought made band programs “fall off” and what it might take to build them up again. I even referred to the famous band at my alma mater, The Marching 101, as a program that was on the rebuilding track. Little did I know just how bad things would eventually get. Since that post we’ve lost our band director…
Though the current status of the band program is a big question mark, it was not always like this. Under the direction of Mr. Ronald J Sarjeant, 1976 – 2004, The Marching 101 became a household name… long before the days of youtube and facebook. You may have to ask your band director or someone from that era about the sound and showmanship of The Marching 101 of those days. The unique “Sarjeant Sound” and the energy those bands performed with consistently ranked them amongst the best college bands of the time. Mr. Sarjeant, or “Sarje” as he was affectionately called by many of his students, retired in 2004 due to health and personal concerns.
During the later years of Sarje’s tenure, and due to the aforementioned reasons, the overall performance quality of the band took a nosedive. Recruitment was non-existent, numbers dropped considerably and the program became a shell of its former self. Realizing this, the new president, Dr. Andrew Hugine – a former Marching 101 member, performed a nationwide search to find a new band director. He was in search of someone who could reclaim the quality performances of the classic “Sarje Era” while catapulting the program, and by result the school, to even newer heights.
Mr. Eddie Ellis was hired as the new Director of Bands at SCSU in 2004. He quickly assembled a great band staff and began repurposing the image and sound of The Marching 101. Interest and excitement about the SCSU band was so strong that membership increased from a block 96 to well over 300 members. Not only was The Marching 101 back in good hands, but the instrumental program as a whole benefited greatly from Mr. Ellis’s leadership. During Ellis’s tenure the band program consisted of many high level instrumental ensembles, including but not limited to; wind ensembles, symphonic and concert bands, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, percussion ensembles, and instrumental “choirs”. For the first time SC State had a total band program.
In 2015 Mr. Ellis was relieved of his duties as band director for unconfirmed reasons. He would later resign. He is now Director of Bands at Allen University, in Columbia South Carolina. Dr. John Robinson was hired as Interim, and eventually promoted to, Director of Bands for SC State. Dr. Robinson took over a program that was facing serious financial restraints due to the state of South Carolina’s audits and regulation over SC State University. During this time many employees were furloughed, programs were cut, the school was placed on a SACS accreditation probation list, and local politicians were circulating rumors that the state’s only public HBCU was shutting its doors (their wishful thinking).
However after much bargaining with the state, which resulted in a new board of trustees and a few interim presidents, the university is now in good standing with SACS and is slowly climbing out of its financial hole. Unfortunately the band program is not fairing too well through these tough times… Midway through the 2017 – 2018 season the band director – Dr. Robinson, resigned for what was described again as “unconfirmed reasons”. That left the band program without permanent leadership and it remains that way to this day. Which brings me to the point of this article…
On February 22nd the university officially announced that it had begun its search for the next band director at SC State. With a history as rich as The Marching 101’s and the support from alumni, who were members of those bands that bounced back to the top just a few short years ago, the question that remains now is… Who can wake the sleeping giant this time? What will it take to achieve and maintain success considering the school’s current political and financial situation?
Any serious candidate will need to provide not only an answer, but a plan of action that adequately addresses that question. Not being an alumnus or South Carolina native instantly puts most at a disadvantage due to not understanding the politics of the state as it relates to band and recruitment. South Carolina is not Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, or Louisiana. If you are looking for South Carolina’s equivalent of Dekalb County (HBCU styled HS band programs) you will never find it. SC is mostly a corp style state. Like me, many of my comrades who marched at SCSU were from corp programs. Due to politics, the next director won’t be able to get in those corp band rooms, initially. Respect will have to be earned first. How do you get that? Product and relationships.
Sarje was able to go to Wando, Goose Creek, Walterboro, and recruit those blue chip players because he was respected because of his product. Ellis had strong relationships with directors from Georgia that respected what he produced at Morris Brown and throughout his career. The next director will be reviving a program while, at the same time, trying to repair the relationship between the university and SC directors that has been neglected for years. It will be the director’s job to rebuild that bridge. It will be difficult. Anyone with an ego or any arrogance at all, will fail.
The band’s scholarship budget will definitely be reduced, so a director should not expect to throw money at students or to recruit heavily out of state like in the past. That model will no longer work at SCSU. The next director will have to utilize some recruitment strategies that include pursuing mainly in-state “blue chip” musicians while letting the product attract students from surrounding areas and other states that want to be a member of The Marching 101.
It will take a unique individual to revive this program. That person already has a plan figured out as I type this. That person is having dreams about what they are about to accomplish or can’t even sleep because they see this vision every time they close their eyes. That person will reshape the entire image of the band program and the university. That person will be someone who loves the program and is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure its success… Or that person will fail.